Mr. Speaker, it is a great honour and privilege for me today to be able to speak on this bill.
My colleague said that he used to be the mayor of a municipality. The municipal level is very dear to my heart, for my father was the mayor of the city of Campbellton until his death a month ago. I can therefore say that today's bill is close to my heart, and that is why it is a privilege and a pleasure to speak to it.
In conversations with representatives from the Federation of Canadian Municipalities, the FCM, it is abundantly clear that municipalities and their organizations do not appreciate having the legislation rammed down their throats. Municipalities were not given any advance notice that the legislation was being introduced. No information, no background notes, no news releases, no summaries and no other materials were sent out to these various municipalities. These municipalities are on the front line serving our constituents. They are the front line government and I believe the most important government in our federation.
The municipal governments have not had time to study the bill and respond to it. In the case of the FCM, it has not had time to consult its members on the bill. This begs the question: If this is such a great piece of legislation, what is the rush?
We all know from experience that when legislation is rushed through the House mistakes often get overlooked. Quick legislation is bad legislation. As a member of the House and as a member of the committee, along with my colleagues, that will attempt to clean up the mistakes in the bill, I call on the government to allow more time for the House standing committee to work on the bill and more time for municipalities and other stakeholders to ensure that the legislation will correct past problems without creating new ones.
Speaking of past problems, the very fact that we have a Municipal Grants Act is a bit of an absurdity of history since the government does not officially recognize the existence of municipalities. Towns, cities and local service districts are not mentioned in the constitution. They have no official mandate. They are entirely a creation of provincial governments. Furthermore, the federal government has a constitutional exemption from paying local taxes.
The problem is that the federal government, which owns property in almost 2,000 municipalities across the country, benefits from all kinds of municipal services, such as water and sewage, roads and other infrastructure. Those services are not free. In spite of its constitutional exemption, the federal should pay for those services like every other good property owner in Canada.
This paradox was resolved in 1950 with the passage of the first Municipal Grants Act which has been updated and revised many times, most recently in 1990. Since 1980, there have been a number of issues pop up that the current legislation does not and cannot resolve. This is the basis of the bill that we have before us today.
For example, a couple of years ago, I remember that there was a dispute between the Department of Fisheries and Oceans and local municipalities as to whether the department had to make a payment in lieu of taxes on wharves.
Not too long ago, the federally owned Aéroports de Montréal protested a property evaluation by the city of Dorval. Ottawa re-evaluated the land at $100 million less than the property assessment and told the city that if it did not like it, it could contest the figure before a federal government appointed tribunal.
In my home province of New Brunswick, the provincial department of municipalities estimates how much municipalities will receive from federal payments in lieu of taxes and pays them that amount. The department then goes about collecting the payments from the federal government, but it is only sometime later that the federal government actually pays the amount due and, in some cases, the payment has taken years.
In 1995, the city of Halifax yelled foul when, after increasing the evaluation of the Citadel from $15 million to $36 million, the federal government reduced its evaluation from $15 million to $1.2 million. Short of going to court, the two governments had no ways of resolving this dispute.
In 1992, the Government of Quebec gave municipalities the right to replace all or part of their business occupancy taxes with a new real property tax. The result was a sudden $41 million increase in the federal payments to Quebec municipalities.
In Ontario, the provincial government eliminated its business occupancy tax. To make up the lost revenue, Ontario municipalities increased their commercial real property tax rates by an average of about 45%. These reforms cost the federal government as much as $100 million a year more in payments in lieu of taxes in leasehold occupancy costs. Furthermore, crown corporations are paying approximately $30 million more.
As well, a freeze on payments from 1993 to 1995 made municipal governments mistrustful of the federal government and made the current system unreliable.
Clearly, it is time to update the legislation to deal with these problems that have presented themselves in recent years.
The bill before us today proposes changes in a number of these areas. The bill would change the name of the legislation from Municipal Grants Act to the payments in lieu of taxes act, while references in the legislation to “grants” will be replaced with the word “payments”. This is to better reflect the nature of the program and the relationship between the Government of Canada as a property owner and Canadian and municipal governments.
The bill proposes introducing compensation for late payments by the federal government to municipalities. It also would give the authority to Ottawa to make payments when tenants on federal property default on their local tax bills. These are important changes under which the federal government accepts a position much closer to that of other property owners regarding its tax obligations.
It would establish a dispute advisory panel under the act with a minimum of two board members from each province and territory. The advisory panel would recommend solutions to the minister when disputes arise between municipalities and the federal government over the appropriate amount of payments.
Outdoor swimming pools, golf course improvements, outdoor theatres, residential driveways and employee parking improvements would be added to the definition of “federal property” and the bill would clarify the wording of the act as it relates to a non-building structure.
As well, Bill C-10 proposes to improve the predictability of payments for municipalities by clarifying how payments are calculated for federal farm property and how deductions are calculated when municipalities are unable or unwilling to provide the federal property with equivalent services to those received by similar private property or structures. It would also clarify the status of Parks Canada assets as federal property.
Although the bill does introduce some important changes, there is one important area where I have strong reservations.
Other than section 4 of the bill, which states the intent of the act and which I think is a waste of space as it accomplishes nothing, I would say that 90% of the bill is an improvement over the existing legislation. The important exception is in section 14, which would establish a new dispute advisory panel.
There are two major difficulties with the proposed new panel, the first being one of fairness and balance and the second being the composition of the panel.
Imagine a court trial in which the defendant got to pick his own jury, got to pay the jury and install himself as final judge with no chance of appeal. How would the defendant do? I suspect he would win just about every case. Would we describe this system as fair? I do not think so. Yet this is exactly the kind of dispute settlement panel the minister has proposed in Bill C-10.
Differences in opinion often arise between municipalities and the federal government over how much the crown owes for payments in lieu of taxes. These disputes are often based on the valuation of a property or the definition and classification of a property.
What the minister has proposed is that he should establish an advisory panel composed of a minimum of two persons from each province and territory, for a total of at least 26 members. The members will be chosen only by the minister, and we can just imagine who will be chosen. The minister will decide how qualified the members of the panel need to be. He will pay them $125 per hour plus expenses and they will report only to him.
The minister can fire any of the members of the board at any time for any reason if, for example, he disagrees with their decision. He can completely ignore any decision of the panel if it suits his purpose and his decision is absolutely final. There is no appeal. Not a bad deal. So much for fairness.
On issues related to the composition of the panel, let us look at section 14 in more detail. Subsection 14(1) proposes, as I have said, a panel consisting of no less than two members from each province and territory with relevant knowledge or experience.
My first reaction was that once the bill passes, there will be 26 very happy Liberals across the country who will have brand new patronage jobs. After all, $125 an hour plus expenses is a pretty good day's work.
I call on the other members of the House to support the bill at second reading so we can get it into committee and hopefully fix some of these problems.